Academic journal article CineAction

Refiguring Rambo: Competing Imperatives in the High Concept War Film

Academic journal article CineAction

Refiguring Rambo: Competing Imperatives in the High Concept War Film

Article excerpt

Of all the films produced during the 1980s to engage the Vietnam War, George Pan Cosmatos' 1985 Sylvester Stallone vehicle, Rambo: First Blood Part II, stands today as the preeminent example of the United States's ill-fated conflict writ large through Hollywood's strategy of visually excessive high concept film production. Of course, warfare and its representation have long been key narrative and generic elements in Hollywood cinema, evident in the work of DW Griffith, whose historical Babylonian battle scenes in Intolerance (1916) were the epitome of cinematic spectacle at the time, and in the more recent spate of fantastical blockbuster films, particularly Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). The 1980s witnessed a unique conflation of warfare's filmic representation, as the Vietnam War, a real event still prominent in national memory, found itself narratively reconstructed as a fantasy playground for seemingly superhuman, hypermasculine individuals that could single-handedly bring apparent closure to a national, political and military failure beset with trauma. While Chuck Norris freed military prisoners from Vietnam in Missing in Action (Joseph Zito, 1984) and both Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen defended the United States against a Communist invasion in Red Dawn (John Milius, 1984), Sylvester Stallone's turn as John Rambo epitomized the subgenre, with Rambo: First Blood Part II being the most financially lucrative and visually excessive film in the 1980s high concept war film cycle. (1)

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The marketing of Rambo: First Blood Part II, specifically the widely disseminated, instantly recognizable image, displayed on posters and one sheets, of Stallone wielding a rocket launcher and displaying his abundant musculature, intimated the film's focus on war and violence as well as the "strength, readiness, [and] dominance" of the macho male body prior to the film's release. (2) As an unprecedented worldwide success, a true blockbuster, Rambo gained enough prominence that Ronald Reagan lauded the film's ability to inform his foreign policy. Simultaneously, Rambo's popularity instigated debates in the liberal press and academic journals over the coming of the "Age of Rambo" and the overabundance of fantastical violence the film celebrated. (3) In such discourse, Rambo was reviewed and criticized as a paean to the effectiveness of warfare in solving international political conflicts, as an exceptionally conservative film that blamed liberalism for the loss of Vietnam, and as a document of extreme narcissism, all too blatant in its fetishizing of male physical dominance and a new beefcake masculinity. (4)

Such an immediate apprehension of the film is understandable--as a high concept action spectacular designed to promote a high box office return, Rambo, in both its marketing campaign and its construction of filmic narrative, appeals to simplicity, blatancy, and legibility. As Yvonne Tasker notes, this blatancy within 1980s action cinema has led to the categorization of these films as "monolithic", inciting knee-jerk dismissal and outright vehemence on the part of both the liberal press and the "cine-literate". (5) However, Tasker contends that such films are by no means as simplistic as they first appear, and exemplify a multitude of at-times-competing discourses concerning politics, national identity, race and gender relations, and masculinity. This essay proposes a critical rereading and refiguring of Rambo: First Blood Part II as a political film unable to reconcile its two main imperatives, namely a vindication of brute force and heavy militarism as viable international policy and an utter rejection of governmental authority through an endorsement of a primitive and savage individualized masculinity. This irreconcilable collision of competing political invectives will be shown to play out across three registers, specifically the plot and character establishment within the film's diegesis, the visual indulgence of the hypermasculine body in crisis, and the film's inscription of cultural otherness. …

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